Around this time every year, Fox executives and the American Idol producers start to panic, wondering if the show's huge audience will return en masse for the start of a new season. But this winter is different. Idol defied the odds last January, engineering a successful reboot with the addition of new judges Jennifer Lopez and Steven Tyler. And more importantly, the show's talent made a comeback as well, thanks in part to the countrified sounds of finalists Lauren Alaina and Scotty McCreery.
Now, as American Idol enters its 11th season, no one's predicting the show's demise. Even with The X Factor and The Voice on the scene, rivals concede that Idol, the granddaddy of them all, remains a ratings monster. For the first time in four seasons, there are no changes at the top, as the team of host Ryan Seacrest and judges Lopez, Tyler and Randy Jackson returns intact. (Mentor Jimmy Iovine is also expected to return.) TV Guide Magazine sat down with the quartet.
TV Guide Magazine: How have the auditions gone so far?
Jennifer Lopez: Last season our Hollywood week was easy breezy compared to this year, which was brutal. We had kids falling by the wayside.
Steven Tyler: Literally falling down.
Randy Jackson: Passing out, fainting.
Lopez: Kids were forgetting their words. Shaking in their voice. People we thought were going to be in the Top 10 were just crumbling. We were like, "What is going on?" I guess it was the pressure of seeing the previous season and how it was big.
Ryan Seacrest: Some crumble and then others rise to the occasion. It was physically intense for a lot of contestants.
Jackson: I think it was even more intense for us.
TV Guide Magazine: What's causing all this added stress?
Jackson: The talent feels different this year. It's a different kind of crop to me.
Lopez: They're hungry. We have some from last year who came back who are so improved, I can't even believe it's the same person. I'm like, "Wait, you were the one with the hair like this, right? Wow, your voice has gotten so much better."
Seacrest: There's a do or die about it. It mirrors what's going on around the country, because some of these contestants have truly made up their minds that they're going to go for their dreams. They are really passionate.
TV Guide Magazine: Anyone they're emulating in particular?
Lopez: Adele. You have some people who do their own rendition of her who do it beautifully and then you have the people who fall a bit short.
Tyler: There have been about 10 contestants who just nailed it. We're just so tired of hearing it, though. Every three songs it's that same song.
Everyone: "Someone Like You."
Lopez: That's the one. But you have to let them sing because you never know who will nail it.
TV Guide Magazine: Talk about the talent. Anyone to keep an eye on?
Tyler: We've got another Casey [Abrams], a drummer who started off playing the drums and singing. We've got a couple of massive talents there.
Lopez: And a lot of diverse singers, just like last season. We had our gospel singer, we had our R&B singer, we had our pop, we had our country, and we had our jazz; we have the same thing again this year. Lots of different voices.
TV Guide Magazine: A year after the Idol reboot, is the pressure gone?
Seacrest: I can't believe it's only been a year. Each night when they walk out from behind the logo and you see this group of judges, it just seems meant to be. We don't look back.
Jackson: I don't think there's any facet of recorded music or the music industry that we don't know almost everything about. We've been doing it, and have been really successful at it.
Tyler: I came from a really down time [in my career] and jumped into this. It allowed me to keep busy with something that's really relevant. To be on TV [where people] could see the other side of me, where I can be personable and show that I've got a weak, sensitive side, it's just so perfect.
TV Guide Magazine: What were your weaknesses last season?
Tyler: It wasn't so easy to listen to some 16-year-old sing a song that was just awful. It would have been better TV if I had just said, "Hey, listen, get out of here. Who taught you how to sing?" But I was at a loss for words, which I'm usually never.
Lopez: Last year it was hard for me in the beginning to say "no" at all. But as time went on I found my own personality and I just thought, "What if it was me standing there? How would I want someone to speak to me?"
TV Guide Magazine: There's talk of you guys being tougher this year.
Lopez: I wouldn't say we're tougher. We're just as honest and just as compassionate, but maybe a tiny bit more blunt about it. I think you'll see a little bit of a difference.
Jackson: I have no issue with saying it was awful or it sucked or was terrible. All the ridicule I got as a kid growing up is what really helped me to whatever greatness I've achieved in this life.
Lopez: You need a little bit of tough love sometimes. But it has to be tough love. Maybe we're a little tougher on the tough-love part this year.
Jackson: We don't want to kill anybody's spirit. We're not gods. Maybe just lords.
American Idol premieres Wednesday, January 18 at 8/7c on Fox.
For more with the Idol judges, pick up this week's issue of TV Guide Magazine, on newsstands Thursday, January 5!